Disney Shocker: Top Exec Anne Sweeney to Exit to Become TV Director (Exclusive)
This story appears in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For a woman who is about to hand over the keys to a $12 billion television empire, Anne Sweeney appears surprisingly at ease.
The co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, dressed casually in a black cardigan, black pants and a crisp white button-down shirt, has invited The Hollywood Reporter to meet her March 9 at a private residence in Los Angeles so she can share some news: She’s leaving the company she has called home for 18 years and — perhaps more shocking — she is doing so to pursue her passion of becoming a director.
“What drives me now is … being immersed in the creative process,” says Sweeney, 56, who began her career at Nickelodeon and FX before joining Disney and growing assets that include such global brands as Disney Channel (107 channels, reaching 431 million households), the ABC broadcast network and studio, ABC Family and Disney’s share of digital player Hulu and a 50 percent stake in cable power A+E Networks. Last year her divisions generated $11.9 billion in revenue and $2.6 billion in profit, making her the most powerful woman in Hollywood (five years running, according to THR’s annual power list). Under her measured watch, ABC became the first network to offer shows online (in 2005) and her division has played a big role in Disney stock hitting an all-time high of $83.65 on March 7.
But Sweeney’s life is about to change. During the course of an hourlong interview, the relaxed and confident mother of two reveals she will step down before the end of 2014, just before her current contract expires in January 2015. Sweeney also reflects on a storied career, and what she calls her “next act” as a director, which she admits she hasn’t quite begun to figure out. In a separate interview by phone March 9, Disney CEO Robert Iger says Sweeney’s decision to leave is hers alone, despite recent ratings troubles at ABC (Iger also pledges support for ABC chief programmer Paul Lee).
Iger reveals he has begun a search for her successor, a process that is sure to set off a frenzy both within the Disney universe and beyond, and his hope to have a replacement before the end of TV’s pilot season in May. An edited version of Sweeney’s interview has been combined with Iger’s comments below, providing a snapshot of one of the most profitable working relationships in Hollywood — one that soon is coming to an end.
Some people are going to say Anne Sweeney is having a midlife crisis.
Anne Sweeney: Well, if I were living to be 112 maybe that would be true. (Laughs.) I’m very committed to immersing myself in the creative process again. I’m at a really beautiful point in my life. My kids are grown and out of the house. My husband is supportive; he knows I’ve always had a passion for the creative process. He sees me reading scripts, looking at rough cuts, he knows that is my underlying passion. I’ve often said [to others], “Do the things that scare you the most.” I’ve always believed that you learn your entire life and you should never pigeonhole yourself. You should also be open to your passion and mine is the creative process and to be a learner again.
Specifically, what is it you want to do?
Sweeney: I have a lot to learn. But I would like to learn to be a director because I know I am not a writer and I am not an actor. And for the countless times I’ve been on our sets, that makes me a set visitor, that does not make me a director or a producer. So this is the place I intend to start. And I know I have a lot of shadowing to do. I have a lot of learning.
Do you know whom you’ll shadow?
Sweeney: No, but I am very fortunate. I have worked with some of the very best people in the business and I have a lot of very good friends whom I will call and ask.
Anne Sweeney, the apprentice?
Sweeney: Yeah, but why not? You don’t want to wake up in three or four years and look in the rearview mirror and say, “Oh, I never did that.” And I’m not going to wake up in three years and say I never immersed myself, I never tried.
Will you stay in the TV universe or pursue film?
Sweeney: TV is where I have spent my career and I do love it, so it makes sense.
You have a relationship with Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Have you had conversations with her about directing?
Sweeney: I will. I have tremendous admiration for Shonda. When she did the first seven episodes of Scandal, it came in as a midseason replacement, and I got to watch the rough cuts. Before it was binge viewing, I binged. I called her and said, “Oh, you have to tell me, what is Quinn’s (Katie Lowes) story?” And she said, “If you want to know, you have to order more episodes.” (Laughs.)
People will be surprised you aren’t leaving Disney for another big executive job. If there is a great opportunity, are you going to say no?
Sweeney: When I think back to my early days of Nickelodeon, when we were practically making the shows in our office, I’m reminded of just how much fun it was. This is a leap I want to make.
If you’d been asked to replace Bob Iger when he leaves in 2016, would we be having this conversation?
Sweeney: That wasn’t a job I wanted to pursue. I know what drives me. I have seen firsthand what [the job] is and he has done it in the most spectacular way. What drives me now is getting closer to or being immersed in the creative process.
Would you have wanted that CEO job a few years ago?
Sweeney: No. And a lot of people wanted it for me. I read that many times.
Did you have any conversation at all about that job?
Did any of the Disney board members discuss it with you?
Is the rumor true that you had talked to Revlon about the top job there?
Sweeney: That’s news to me. (Laughs.)
How exactly did the “I’m leaving” conversation happen?
Sweeney: It was the two of us, Bob and I, in his office, and it was just a continuing conversation that we had been having about what’s next and what I wanted to do. He is enormously gracious and made it about, “Well, what do you want to do? What is it? What is driving you?”
Bob Iger: I first came to Anne six months or so before her contract [last] expired and offered her a multiyear contract extension. She shocked me by saying she didn’t really want to go long, that she was thinking about her life and exploring other things. She said, “I’m not looking for a job in competition with Disney,” but she wasn’t specific. She said she had dreams that she wanted to pursue and she didn’t want to take me through it at the time, but she thought a shorter extension would be wise. I said, “Why don’t you come back and tell me exactly what it is you want.” She came back and suggested an extension [of one year] that was short enough to allow her to pursue what she wanted on what she considered to be a timely basis because she didn’t want to wait forever, but long enough to give me a chance to distill it, start thinking about succession and ultimately, for the three of us, myself and whoever replaces her, to create an orderly transition. She very much wanted to participate in helping the person that succeeds her succeed. That was essentially it. She didn’t tell me until very, very, very late in the discussion exactly what she had in mind.
I would not have expected TV director.
Iger: Well, actually, it’s interesting because she said, “I’m going to shock you,” and then I started guessing. [I guessed] cooking in Italy. She recently spent time renting places in Italy through someone that I had rented from, and we talked about the experience of cooking there, so that was one guess. She has education in her background, she loves teaching, so that was a second guess. Or going back to school and getting an advanced degree. I kidded her when she said she was going to shock me with a variety of other things that will be nameless — but were not sordid!
Why announce this move now with so much time left?
Sweeney: I know, I know. It just doesn’t seem that there’s ever a good time. I figured sooner rather than later gave the company more time to think through what they want to think through.
Iger: At one point, we were thinking of announcing this a little bit later this year, but once she could taste her life after in terms of pursuing this passion of hers, it became clear she wanted to get it out in the open, didn’t want any information to ultimately leak and be misinterpreted — and I completely supported that. By the way, this is [also] one of the rare weeks I’m actually in L.A. from Monday to Friday and that has not happened in a very long time. I need to communicate with all her direct reports as well. There will be others in the company that will express interest in the job to whom I will speak, I’m sure.
What about succession?
Sweeney: It will be Bob’s call. If you know Disney, you know that we are very organized and we have succession plans.
Iger: Anne has been consulted and she will continue to be. It will ultimately be my decision, but she’ll definitely be my partner. We have considerable talent in the company and I am convinced that we have the talent to replace Anne. There will be a fairly steep learning curve because it represents a big group. Whoever gets the job will represent big growth in terms of level of responsibility, number of moving parts, exposure to the inside world from a different constituent than to the outside world.
Bob, you have two stars in the Disney TV family, ABC News’ Ben Sherwood and A+E Networks’ Nancy Dubuc, both of whom people expect to have much larger roles at some point.
Iger: Superstars find ways to do more in the companies they work for. And if they don’t, then it’s the company’s loss for not providing their superstars opportunity. I’m not going to name any names though. You’re not getting me into that conversation.
How do you search for this person?
Iger: I’ve been thinking about succession very specifically for the last few months, as I knew Anne’s time was limited. But I’m not advanced enough to have narrowed it down yet. I’m going to put a lot more energy into it very quickly. We have a very deliberate succession process at Disney. We have a talent planning process whereby I discuss with my direct reports all of their direct reports and who the highest-potential people are in the company and who has the most potential to succeed them. It happens very formally every year where we literally look at sheets of paper with pictures, etcetera, and I ultimately discuss all this with the board. We end up coming up with a list of a few hundred people that we track and have a very, very strong sense of who they are and what their potential is, but also who is movable to other business units.
So someone could come to the TV group from, say, the theme parks or film division?
Iger: It’s not out of the question. I think it hasn’t been determined yet, I guess is the best way to put it.
Anne, there has been chatter in the industry that Nancy could possibly become a successor.
Sweeney: I have no idea. But I can tell you I think the world of her. She’s doing a spectacular job.
Bob, when will you have succession in place?
Iger: My goal is to do it fast because Anne and I both feel that getting someone in the job while pilot season is in full swing [through May] so that they can at least have some direct experience in that process would be helpful. So that’s my goal. And so that means sooner rather than later.
Anne is the most powerful woman in Hollywood. Do you feel internal pressure to replace her with a woman or do you not care if …
Iger: No, I do. I care deeply about that. You mean diversity? As is the case with all these jobs, we have to put the best person in the job as possible. I love diversifying in terms of the senior talent at the company. I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to accomplish that here. I can’t say for sure that I will or won’t.
Hollywood loves to whisper that Anne and Bob don’t get along. Is any of that true?
Sweeney: I think [rumors] swirl because we’re so stable, to be honest. You have a night with bad ratings and suddenly it’s the end of the world. It isn’t. We are a company that takes a long-term view. The relationship stuff, I have no idea where that comes from. I think other people’s agenda, to be honest.
I’m curious how this all plays out (in the press).
Iger: There is nothing below the surface here, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure the Kremlinologists in this town will have their typical field day, but that’s just the way it goes.
Many people are wondering what is going to happen to Paul Lee at ABC.
Sweeney: I will tell you that Bob and I have faith in Paul. We do. And we have seen the development and he is in pilot [season] right now. We are on board.
Iger: Paul Lee has my full support. I know that that rumor has been around. He’s got my full support. I don’t want to say anything more about it. And he and I share the [belief that] we’d love a few more hits at ABC. By the way, there are elements of primetime that we’re quite happy about. There are shows that we’re really proud of, led by Scandal, for instance. And other shows that have come out of the blue like Shark Tank. We have some hits. We’re due.
Does that mean you are renewing his contract?
Sweeney: I don’t want to discuss that.
But I’m right that his contract is up this summer?
Sweeney: I would have to check.
ABC is positioning itself as increasingly women-focused. Can a broadcast network successfully skew toward one gender?
Sweeney: Actually, more women watch television than men. So one of the things that Paul Lee realized when he took the job was that we had a very, very strong, loyal group of women who were ABC viewers to the core. I think he paid a lot of attention to that.
Iger: I’m kind of a fan of choosing the best shows and not being burdened by a so-called brand or by one demo. I think audiences today are sophisticated. And so I like to think that we are more expansive in our thinking about what we develop and what we program.
You did go after NFL Thursday night rights that went to CBS. What happened?
Sweeney: We didn’t get them. (Laughs.) Honestly, I don’t know why. Whatever deal was struck was a deal they wanted more than ours.
How big will sports be for ABC in the coming years?
Iger: Not very. The sports brand for us is ESPN. That was the decision I made years back, maybe to some extent at the expense of ABC from a male demo perspective. But ABC did just fine. In the years I had Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, we were perfectly happy with essentially programming a nonsports network. ESPN does program football [on ABC] Saturdays in the fall, and I watched a great basketball game on ABC today that was produced by ESPN. The Lakers beat Oklahoma City.
How do you see the late-night situation shaking out this year with Jimmy Kimmel up against Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman?
Sweeney: I have not just faith in Jimmy Kimmel, but I really do believe Kimmel has a fantastic show. We all expected to see the [Fallon] launch play out much the way it did. And we all expected to see Kimmel’s numbers come back as they have been. So I think competition is a good thing but I think our Jimmy is the real deal.
Anne, looking back, what is your proudest moment?
Sweeney: This team has done magnificent things — getting behind GMA, getting behind Jimmy Kimmel, getting behind schedules, specials, events, just what they bring to the table. You wouldn’t know that the Disney Channel would have something to offer GMA or that GMA would have something to offer Kimmel. But the team comes together in a way that really makes me incredibly proud and has made the division successful.
How involved were you in the GMA turnaround?
Sweeney: I give credit: that is [GMA executive producer] Tom [Cibrowski], that is Ben Sherwood, Robin Roberts.
But you hired Ben Sherwood when a lot of people would say you should not have hired him.
Sweeney: I remember meeting Ben, who was not offering himself as a candidate for the job. He was living on the West Coast, he had relocated his family, and he just finished a second book and had a baby. So he was in a very different stage of his life. I had known Ben when he was the EP of GMA. So to have a conversation with him on the other side was fascinating. We didn’t talk about what was wrong, we talked about what was possible. And I started to get so excited about what was possible. But he never once said, “And I’m the guy to do it for you.” And I went on to interview quite a few other people and I was starting to whittle down the list, and he called me and he said, “I’m crazy if I don’t put myself forward for this. Is it too late?” And I said, “No, but now we have to have a real conversation.” So I interviewed him a couple of times. Bob and I had dinner with him. And I remember just feeling done, settled.
There is talk that Sherwood might have an expanded portfolio in daytime. Is that going to happen?
Sweeney: He has a full portfolio in news. A very full portfolio. You have to remember, he is the guy with [Univision’s Isaac Lee] who launched Fusion, which is a huge undertaking. He did the Yahoo deal. I expect Ben will continue to bring us tremendous opportunities.
What about Hulu? Will it be back on the sales block?
Sweeney: No, no. That’s not on the horizon.
Anne, did you think about Sherry Lansing (who voluntarily left Paramount at the top in 2005) when making your decision?
Sweeney: I thought about Sherry constantly. Constantly. Sherry has been my role model for probably longer than she realizes. But I remember the day that she announced and I remember hearing or reading that she was going to start a foundation. And I thought, “What? How do you go from being the head of Paramount to starting a foundation?” And then you see something miraculous like Stand Up to Cancer [which Lansing co-founded] happen because Sherry meant what she said. Looking back, we were probably about the same age, making these decisions about change in our lives. I hate to call it the “last act,” but the “what is the next act?” I know she loved Paramount like I love Disney.
How did you feel at the Dolby Theatre on March 2 knowing it was your last Oscars together?
Sweeney: I really appreciate every moment. I went in with a lot of gratitude. And I really loved the 43.7 million people that watched. Boy, talk about going out with a bang.
Iger: It did hit me at one point, although I didn’t dare say it to her, that this was the last time we were going to be sitting next to each other at the Oscars.
Anne, how are you going to feel in five years if you are not a successful director?
Sweeney: I will have figured out what’s next. I’m invested in becoming very good at it or I would not be choosing to start there. I don’t know where it’s going to take me because I haven’t started. I am really leaving myself open.
Bob, day to day, what will you miss most about Anne?
Iger: When you work with someone that long, it’s kind of like a marriage. You know each other’s language and each other’s interests and passions, what they care about, what they don’t care about, how they communicate. So you develop a shorthand. And when you’re in my job — because of how busy I am and how large the company that I run is — you want peak efficiency in terms of information flow, communication and decision making. So I’ll miss all of that. But more than anything, I’ll miss the friendship. Anne and I have had a really, really fine working relationship over the years. We talk family and we know where we’re spending the weekends. You end up sharing a lot of things and we also talk a lot about children and places in the world and what our passions are.
Finally, Bob, Anne as a director: Do you see it?
Iger: Yes, definitely.
Stephen Galloway contributed to this report.